Six months ago, everyone was talking about “the little book that could.” And Hollywood was abuzz about the indie movie version as well as a deal with Sony Entertainment to make a Hollywood adaptation that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp were all chomping at the bit to be attached to.
It’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (adapted from its original title “Men Who Hate Women”) by the late Swedish author, journalist, and activist Stieg Larsson.
The book … part of a trilogy known as the "Millennium series" … chronicles the exploits of noted journalist Mikael Blomkvist, a respected investigative reporter and publisher of the political magazine Millennium in Stockholm. In this novel, Blomkvist has just lost a criminal libel case against a billionaire Swedish industrialist and his career is in ruins. While awaiting the start of his prison sentence, he is approached by representatives of Henrik Vanger … an elderly man and former CEO of another huge Swedish manufacturing conglomerate. Intrigued by the contact, Blomkvist meets with Vanger to discuss a job offer writing the Vanger family biography. And although the writing assignment is legit, Blomkvist’s real assignment … known only to a slect few … would be to use his investigative skills to solve the decades-old disappearance (perhaps murder) of Vanger’s favorite niece, Harriet. At first, the principled journalist refuses, but a substantial paycheck is promised as well as evidence that will help him prove that he was wronged in the libel suit. Begrudgingly, Blomkvist accepts the job.
Running parallel to Blomkvist’s rollercoaster life is a young woman named Lisbeth Salander. Troubled as a youth and actually institutionalized for psychological reasons, Salander works as a freelance researcher for a security firm … the same firm that did a comprehensive background investigation on Blomkvist before Henrik Vanger hired him. Salander is abrupt, socially awkward, and heavily inked, but she also possesses incredible deductive skills, as well as computer hacking abilities she uses covertly to enhance her work. But because of her turbulent past, she is technically a ward of the state and has a guardian who oversees her finances and other life activities. Recently, Salander is assigned a new guardian by the name of Nils Bjurman, a closet sadist who extorts sexual “favors” from her and eventually rapes her. Unaware of her keen intellect and resourcefulness, she exacts a telling revenge on Bjurman and then needs to distance herself from both the man and the city of Stockholm.
Meanwhile, Blomkvist has been meeting with dozens of members of the extended Vanger family and is finding bits and pieces of a growing mystery. Something seems sinister in the Vanger clan and he needs a researcher to help sort things out. Blomkvist and Salander eventually become associates, he with a strong attraction to her unique personality and she in the dubious position of knowing literally every detail about her new “employer.” The relationship blossoms over plot twists, the intricacies of international business fraud, a tour of much of the Swedish landscape, trips to other continents, and a trail of subtle clues that ends in secret identities, family betrayal, and serial murder.
I cannot begin to describe how fascinatingly intricate and interwoven this novel is. The first 15 pages were brutaly slowl, but from page 16 I could not put the damn thing down. If the publishers had made the book waterproof, I would have showered with it. The main characters are so flawed you just want to sit down with them and buy them a coffee and a muffin and have them pour out their hearts. The Vanger family is as screwed up as it gets, yet I was dying to meet every one of them. And the descriptive writing used to explain basic Swedish politics, economics, and history was welcome … not overdone.
The real treat in this book is that the author lived much of what he wrote about. Larsson, whose first works were actually in the genre of science fiction, had a varied career as a political activist, photographer, and graphic designer for a news agency. In 1995, he started the Swedish Expo Foundation, a sort of political watchdog organization with a scathing foundation publication entitled Expo … incredibly similar to Millennium in his books.
And like the character Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson authored countless articles on violence against women, the incompetence of investigative journalists, the immoral nature of big business, and growing political extremist groups. His work was so volatile that he had much of his personal information removed from public records to protect his identity and he and his family and close friends received numerous death threats.
And probably the most sad note of “life imitating art” is that when Larsson was 15, he witnessed the gang rape of a girl and was powerless to stop it. That experience and the guilt he felt helped craft the “Lisbeth Salander” character (the real-life rape victim’s name was Lisbeth) as well as his lifetime support of women’s charities.
As I said, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of three books, released in Sweden in 2005 and in the U.S. (English translation) in September of 2008. The sequel publication, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released in Sweden in 2006 and in the U.S. in July of 2009. The follow-up, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, made its Swedish debut in 2007; U.S. fans embraced the book in May of 2010. I promise you if you read the first one, you will sell your mother-in-law (who wouldn't?) for the other two.
And of course, Stieg Larsson’s personal story continues to gain momentum. The three novels were published posthumously after his death in November of 2004. They were basically just a project he worked on after his “regular job” for fun; only just prior to his death did Larsson look into the possibility of publishing his Millennium works.
Fans are currently delighted in the fact that, according to some sources, Larsson’s long-time lover has in her possession a notebook computer with three-quarters of a finished fourth Millennium novel and extensive notes on a fifth and sixth book for the series.
Larsson and his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won dozens of awards including the Glass Key Award (2006) for best crime novel; the prestigious Boeke Prize (2008) in South Africa; the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award (2008) for international author of the year; a Galaxy British Book Award (2009); and the Anthony Award (2009) for best first novel.
Additonally, Larsson was honored in 2009 by the General Council of the Judiciary in Spain for his contributions to the fight against domestic violence. He was listed as the second best-selling author in the world in 2008, and in 2010 USA Today named Stieg Larsson “Author of the Year.” Larsson’s “Millennium series” books have sold more than 27 million copies in more than 40 countries, and he was the first author on record to sell more than one million e-books on the popular Amazon.com.
POINT OF RANT: Get ye to a bookery and buy the damn thing ... or hit up your local library and put your name on the waiting list!